To ask this question is to invite immediate controversy. Are we talking about a trade like any other or the downright exploitation of women? Is prostitution a means to provide income or rather an expression of violence against women? Is it freely chosen or imposed? Are we referring to the oldest profession in the world or merely a form of slavery to be banned? Whatever definition we choose, we inevitably take sides, express judgements and favour certain approaches to the problem, be they legislative or otherwise.
Prostitution is difficult to grasp. It is a complex, multifaceted problem that impacts reality in different ways. The illegal and clandestine nature of this activity prevents us from gaining a clear understanding of where it begins and ends. Unlike other occupations, we can’t rely on official investigations to find out the number of workers, clients or the income which is generated. The result is the scarcity of reliable data, all the more so because the existing research emphasizes the prostitutes over the other protagonists involved, namely the johns and the pimps.
Finally, as we have seen, there are many perceptions, analyses and interpretations. Yet, among the wide range of opinions, two main views predominate. On one hand, prostitution is in no way deemed a normal occupation. Proponents of this view believe that prostitution is a manifestation of the violence of men against women. Accordingly, women do not rationally and freely enter prostitution but are led into this condition by social, political and economical factors. As a result of this view of prostitution, we feel empathy for the victims, the prostitutes themselves, and we seek their decriminalization, along with the prosecution of the johns and pimps who are responsible for the exploitation of the women.
Another point of view has gained acceptance in the last 20 years. The well-known demonstrations by prostitutes in the 70’s in Europe have given rise to the sex worker groups. According to these groups, prostitution is a freely chosen occupation. They refute the notion of victimization while denouncing the stigmatization that affects their work and makes their living conditions so difficult. They want the right to ownership of their bodies. In the end, their demands would lead to the decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution whenever it stems from a personal decision between consenting adults. Can these positions be reconciled? Rather than debating this question, we will attempt to describe the underlying reality of prostitution. Without doubt, the three key players involved in prostitution are the prostitutes, mostly women and girls, the clients or johns, who are mostly men, and the pimps, or at the very least the various participants,...